After World War II, across the South there was growing unrest among African Americans regarding the racial inequality in the United States education system. In South Carolina, the inequalities were so much in Summerton that Black families would no longer stay quiet.
By the time the United States geared up for World War II, the Army was rejecting about one-third of South Carolina’s draftees, both white and Black, because of their lack of education. By the US military’s standards, a “lack of education” signified a person was unable to read or complete basic math problems. While the entire state lagged behind the national standard, Black schools remained significantly unequal to white schools in South Carolina, with rural Black schools facing the worst school conditions and learning outcomes. Without the state distributing equal funding, South Carolina’s Black schools were physically deteriorating, classrooms were overcrowded, and buildings often lacked electricity or running water.
With glaring educational inequality apparent across the South, civil rights organizations began addressing race-based school inequality in the 1930s and 1940s. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began suing states and school districts to fix inequality in public schools based on Plessy v Ferguson’s “separate but equal” ruling. Returning World War II African American soldiers, frustrated by their country’s willingness to have Black soldiers risk their lives to protect democracy while treated unequally at home, also helped push the fight for racial equality.
In South Carolina, using Plessy v Ferguson’s requirement of “separate but equal,” twenty Black Summertons sued local school board officials in 1949 by calling attention to the complete lack of equal facilities and funding in Clarendon County. Led by local pastor J.A. DeLaine, who worked with both state NAACP leadership and local Black parents and teachers, Summerton families succeeded in gaining the attention of national NAACP leadership with their lawsuit.
The white backlash against the Black families who signed the petition began. Harry Briggs’ boss asked him to remove his name from the petition. When he did not, Briggs was fired on Christmas Eve. Eliza Briggs also lost her job. Another signer, Annie Gibson, was fired from her job and then evicted from her house on Christmas Eve. White employers fired Rev. DeLaine and members of his family from their jobs. Whites’ intimidation partially worked, but twenty people remained on the petition despite the backlash. Rev. DeLaine’s daughter noted it was a “not-so-Merry Christmas.” Shortly after Christmas 1949, the DeLaine’s Summerton home burned down.
When the Summerton School District No. 22 did not respond to the petition, the NAACP then filed suit in federal district court in May 1950. In the meantime, South Carolina’s leaders seized on the equalization demands in the petition, and they began planning for a massive school construction campaign across South Carolina that would provide “equal” schools. This became known as South Carolina’s school equalization program, though it would not live up to its name.
Led by Governor James Byrnes, the General Assembly passed a three-cent sales tax to fund all the new equalization schools. This was the first time that the state permanently taxed goods for sale. The purpose of the tax was to maintain segregation by funding new Black school construction. South Carolina put the program in place in 1951 just before the federal district court hearing in the Summerton suit, Briggs v. Elliott. By the time the federal court heard the Briggs case in June 1951, the NAACP and the Summerton parents revised their suit away from equalization, calling for complete desegregation. The federal court ruled that desegregation would not occur, but directed South Carolina to provide equal schools and education. In a break from the Southern tradition, Federal Judge J. Waties Waring, who sat on the district court, issued a strong dissent, stating that segregation “is an evil that must be eradicated.”
After the loss in the federal district court, the NAACP and the Briggs petitioners appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, South Carolina state leaders worked with local school districts to continue to build new public schools for Black students. The new school program meant that most one- or two-room schools closed, and students attended larger schools. This consolidation resulted in many Black students no longer living within walking distance of their assigned school. South Carolina purchased a fleet of buses. Now both white and Black students could ride their segregated buses to their segregated schools, a first for Black children in the state.
Although the small one- or two-room schools many Black children attended were significantly unequal to the white schools, those small schools were at the centers of their rural communities. Teachers and principals lived in or near their schools, and they attended church and other community events with their students and parents. Black schools hosted picnics, plays, and celebrations, in addition to school graduations and other ceremonies. However, state-level decisions to consolidate these older schools for the equalization school program erased these community centers. Between 1951 and 1954, over 800 schools closed. Most of these were Black schools.